Story Seeker: Myriam Benzakour-Durand
Person interviewed: Laïla Mestari
Interview date: June 21, 2021
A Montreal-based artist born in Casablanca, Morocco, Laïla Mestari is enthusiastic about the dialogue between the visual and the performing arts. Her artistic practice is diverse and includes photography, textile works, art installations, video performances, and drawing. Her latest project, Fille de foin/Hay Girl, was selected by the LOBE artist centre in Chicoutimi and was staged in the midst of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, when all artistic activities were at a standstill. Each year the LOBE centre invites a curator who selects artists and accompanies them throughout their creative projects. Contrary to traditional commissions, in which artists create the works and curators decide how to present them, the LOBE centre offers experimental commissions, which means the guest artists are accompanied throughout the entire creation process.
The partnership between Laïla and the LOBE artist centre is an example of audacity, resilience, and passion-driven work, which allowed the project to adapt to the exceptional circumstances imposed by the health measures.
The Challenge: Presenting art in the midst of a pandemic
As the LOBE team prepared to welcome Laïla to the gallery in November 2020, the pandemic situation in Chicoutimi was extremely tense, and the health regulations were frequently changing. Artist centres were in some cases considered commercial venues, and cultural venues in others. As a result, it was difficult to keep up with the regulations. Several times Laïla thought she was going to lose her contract with the LOBE centre because even the team didn’t know if they were allowed to work. When her contacts at the artist centre told Laïla that her exhibition would be cancelled because she wasn’t considered “essential”, she became upset and challenged them to be more bold.
Things were really ambiguous at that point in time. And artist centres have to go strictly by the book since they receive public funding. I told them, ‘I totally understand that you don’t want to get in trouble, but come on, it’s really sad to tell artists to stay home because of one line in a law that says art isn’t essential’.
In the end, after a discussion with the board of directors, the centre’s team found a way to change Laïla’s status from artist to essential worker so that she could have access to the gallery to work. They allocated additional funds for housing and car rentals to ensure that the artist was almost completely self-isolated.
The Innovation: Pushing the boundaries for ways to exhibit art
Both the artist and the organization adapted to the situation with regard to the creation process, their working method, and their budget. The real innovation, however, was the way in which both parties set up the exhibition for viewing – how could they allow the public to view an exhibition without going into the gallery?
Four solutions made the presentation of the project possible:
- The first step was to choose the artistic medium—in this case, video. Knowing that the participants couldn’t enter the gallery, Laïla felt that video creation would be the best option. She created a video installation with a vantage point outside the centre so that it would be visible through the window. Everything inside the gallery was displayed as if the window were an image of a three-dimensional collage in a shadow box. Video lent itself well to this project since people were invited to visit at night to see the lights from the televisions and projectors through the window, which made things seem to emanate from within. In addition, knowing that people wouldn’t be able to hear the video (in compliance with health measures), Laïla didn’t invest any time on sound design. Throughout the entire creation process, she adapted to the limitations of what was going to be seen.
- To give more visibility to the work, the LOBE centre contacted an advertising company to rent display space for two images on a billboard. The lighted image displayed on a major boulevard was tied to the exhibition in the gallery.
- They joined forces with the public library team, which was also operating in a limited capacity – library users could only order books through the Internet and pick them up. The library team offered their unused space for a television and a video screening through the window looking out onto a public space. These video projections were also tied to the exhibition in the gallery.
- Lastly, a small print magazine created for the exhibition was distributed on site, as well as at fairs and exhibitions in France and Germany.
The collaboration between the artist and the centre ensured maximum visibility: not only did Laïla create an exhibition that could reach the public more easily, but the centre’s team also found original new ways to set up and promote an exhibition.
The Financials: Artist’s fees and artistic development
As an artist, Laïla is always looking for career opportunities, events that are at least somewhat profitable, and financially viable experiences that are sources of inspiration and creativity. Her residency with the LOBE centre was an opportunity that definitely paid off on several levels – with the artist’s fees for the exhibition plus the technical and professional experience she acquired. The support from the technical team allowed her to further her artistic abilities, enhance her portfolio, create professional works, and apply for a master’s degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was accepted for the fall.
By giving emerging artists a professional framework, a support team, and a curator who is an established artist, the LOBE centre helps artists in their professional development, a service that truly benefitted Laïla.
The Takeaways : Audacity, new opportunities, flexible artistic practices, going beyond the comfort zone
Laïla was bold enough to challenge the organization to find ingenious and previously untested solutions for exhibiting art in their city, at a time when virtually everything was closed. This experience helped her realize that artists have a responsibility to push the boundaries imposed on them, to take risks. “Plenty of my artist friends went through similar situations during the pandemic. After this experience, I told them, ‘Shake them up! Because if you don’t, we have nothing.’”
Laïla and the LOBE team were very pleased with the new opportunities that they developed thanks to the constraints imposed on them. The connections they made with the advertising agent and the Chicoutimi library team are ongoing relationships with the community that will be useful in the future. The experience was beneficial for everyone involved.
It was advantageous for Laïla to have a flexible artistic practice, with the use of multiple media. Her Fille de foin/Hay Girl project was extremely adaptable to the exceptional circumstances of COVID-19.
By moving the exhibition outside the gallery and exhibiting it through the window of the public library and on a billboard, Laïla went outside her comfort zone. As a visible minority in a city with very few racialized people, she was uncomfortable putting her image in a public space. She realized that for her, the artist centre was a safe space, where the presentation of her art was supported by the vision and legitimacy of the place.
I was a bit uncomfortable, but I also observed that there were no consequences. Because these are fears based on the past and on prejudices. It’s a mix of prejudices and experiences. But I am really happy to have done it.
The partnership between the LOBE artist centre and Laïla showed that with a bit of audacity and a lot of work, possibilities multiply. As Laïla said, “You have to take risks instead of saying that it’s not possible to do things like we always have. You have to be bold and try things that have never been done before.”